Why Child Abuse Prevention Month Matters

sad asian babySome observances are ones you wish you did not have to mark. With some 686,000 children victimized annually by physical, mental, or sexual abuse, National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April is one of those observances.  If there is good news here, it is that reports of child abuse have been declining slightly over recent years.

Congress first drew national attention to the pervasive issue of child maltreatment in 1982 by declaring June 6-12 to be Child Abuse Prevention Week. President Reagan expanded the initiative by declaring the entire month of April as National Child Abuse Prevention Month. This tradition carries on as various communities mark 2014’s National Child Abuse Prevention Month with demonstrations such as employees at a children’s hospital in Colorado lining up to form a giant blue ribbon to honor children in Colorado who have died from child abuse and neglect, or individuals planting blue pinwheels in parks or on the grounds of legislatures to bring community awareness to the issue of child maltreatment.

The latest figures by The Children’s Bureau’s Annual Report on Child Maltreatment provide updated statistics on our nation’s reported incidences of child abuse and neglect. The report indicates that in 2012:

  • Child protective service workers responded to an estimated 3.8 million allegations of child abuse or neglect nationwide.
  • An estimated 686,000 children were victims of child maltreatment.
  • The most common form of maltreatment was neglect (78.3 percent of all substantiated cases), followed by physical abuse (18.3 percent) and sexual abuse (9.3 percent).
  • 13.3 percent of victims were reported as having a disability.
  • 81.5 percent of victims of maltreatment were abused by one or both parents.

Nationally, child maltreatment rates have been experiencing small declines since 2008. According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, in 2011 overall rates of substantiated cases of child maltreatment declined approximately 2 percent from 2010 to 2011. Consistent with this trend, child victimization rates have declined by 3.3 percent from 2008 to 2012, resulting in an estimated 30,000 fewer victims of child maltreatment in 2012 as compared to 2008.

In interpreting these findings, it is important to keep in mind that victimization statistics are based on substantiated allegations of maltreatment. Additional cases that go unreported, or cases that lack sufficient evidence to be substantiated, are not included in the counts of victims. Indeed, “big data” have been used to try to assess how well substantiated reports correspond with the incidence of maltreatment. Analyses of Google search data by economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, summarized  in a New York Times op-ed last April, provided some evidence that the incidence of maltreatment may have actually increased between 2010 and 2011, a period during which substantiated reports of maltreatment declined. While big data are unlikely to provide us with accurate rates of the incidence of maltreatment, they are useful for reminding us of the fuzziness of estimates based on administrative data (i.e., case-level data used by child welfare agencies). Nevertheless, both data sources indicate that child maltreatment is an ongoing and substantial problem.

What factors place a child at risk for child maltreatment? Children under the age of four are most at risk for abuse or neglect. In addition, children with disabilities and special needs, children living in low-income households, or with single parents, or parents dealing with substance abuse are at increased risk of abuse or neglect. On a broader level, children raised by caregivers in an environment in which violence is prevalent in the community and in which the caregiver has a lack of social supports are at an increased risk for child maltreatment. Although these risk factors have been shown to be associated with child maltreatment, the link is not strong, making it difficult to predict which children are most likely to be victims of maltreatment. This presents a particular challenge for child maltreatment prevention programs. 

Child welfare professionals have worked together to develop effective strategies for preventing child abuse and maltreatment.  The Children’s Bureau has compiled a resource, Making Meaningful Connections: 2014 Resource Guide, designed for community-based child welfare professionals. The resource contains guidance on topics including protective factors for reducing child abuse, community engagement, and tip sheets for working with parents. Additionally, the 2014 National Child Abuse Prevention Month website presents a media toolkit with suggested social media posts, such as for Facebook and Twitter, for increasing awareness of child maltreatment.  With the proper knowledge, tools, and awareness, community members can work together to prevent child abuse and neglect. And maybe some day, we won’t have to observe National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

Megan Novak, research assistant

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